Health and policy experts see developing a coronavirus vaccine as the best medical solution to kill off the disease that’s killed more than 1,000 in South Carolina and hundreds of thousands across the world. But while it may be months or even years away, questions remain on distribution and whether people will accept it.
“(A vaccine) really is the thing we need before we’re ever going to get back to normal again,” said Beaufort Republican Sen. Tom Davis, a member of both the Senate Medical Affairs and the Re-Open South Carolina Select committees. “It’s one thing to have a vaccine and it’s another to distribute it to have the economic and health benefits that we want and we ought to be preparing for it now.”
Prakash Nagarkatti, an immunologist and University of South Carolina vice president of research, called the question of getting a high vaccination rate in the state “the million dollar question.”
“If we can’t sell the wear-a-mask message, then we can’t sell the message of take-the-vaccine,” Nagarkatti said. “If you really want to open the economy and not have to think twice about the virus moving forward, then we need to wear masks and social distance and wash hands, but also once the vaccine becomes available and it’s safe, then people need to get vaccinated.”
As of Friday, there are 197 vaccines currently in some phase of development. Under the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed, up to $10 billion in federal funding has been made available to eight vaccine developers. Making headlines last week: Moderna’s vaccine will start its final testing phase with a 30,000-person study July 27 to prove the efficacy of its shots.
Meanwhile, Nephron Pharmaceuticals in West Columbia announced last week it would prepare for a potential coronavirus vaccine distribution in its $215 million expansion plan that would create an additional 380 jobs.
Researchers have estimated at least 70 percent of the population needs to develop immunity to the virus for its eradication. That’s 3.5 million people in South Carolina, where only 1.5 million were inoculated during the 2019-2020 flu season.
Nagarkatti said he fears up to 50 percent of the population may refuse vaccination — a roadblock not seen in the 20th century eradication of smallpox. Medical University of South Carolina microbiology professor Michael Schmidt said polio and smallpox — two victories of vaccination efforts — did not have what the coronavirus has: social media and brewing distrust.
“It seems like everything in our society now automatically becomes politicized now even things you think couldn’t be are and that’s the nature of our times,” Davis said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens with vaccinations as well.”
But Charleston Democratic Rep. Wendell Gilliard said he hasn’t seen any hesitation among his constituents.
“As long as the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] approves it and it’s proven to be effective and safe, they’d stand in line for it for their children and themselves rather than be put on the ventilator,” he said. “When you look at the people who have contracted this every day, everybody will be kicking the doors down to be vaccinated.”
Public health policy experts said now is the time for health officials in the state to begin crafting public messages to combat misinformation.
“We really need to think strategically in how to message this properly to the general public,” Schmidt said.
Logistics should also be worked out at the same time as vaccine development, he said.
“We’ve seen the challenges with simply lining up for voting,” Schmidt said. “One of the discussions that our governor and state legislature needs to be planning for: If we get a vaccine how are we going to distribute it?”
Some have drawn parallels between the inability to ramp up testing and the problems to come with vaccine distribution.
“It’s incumbent upon government to put into place the infrastructure whereby if someone wants to get vaccinated they can,” Davis said. “(Testing) exposed a structural problem here in South Carolina. We had difficulty in ramping up tests because we didn’t have the personnel and the various pieces.”
Part of that streamlining could come from expanding the pool of those qualified to administer vaccines. Davis has worked in recent years in expanding the list of health services under nurse practitioners and other medical professionals.
“There’s no reason why more couldn’t be authorized to administer the vaccine. That just goes into the logistics of it all. How do you go about making the massive number of people available to the vaccine,” he said.